The only certain things in life are death and taxes, but I’ve noticed a lot of uncertainty about the latter of the two lately.
With so much in the news lately about things we don’t have but need or want: the activity center and CTE facilities that are part of the Huntsville School District’s millage proposal; the voting equipment that the county needs to make it through the next big election; and the repairs that may be coming but also may not be coming to the Withrow Springs State Park’s pool (and that’s just what’s covered on 1A this week), we have a lot here that needs funding from a lot of different areas.
It’s not as simple as saying, “put our tax dollars toward this project,” or “take away from this place to fund this other.” When we get into government – especially the way our taxes are spent – there’s a lot to dissect. What pays for one thing may not legally be allowed to pay for another; similarly, what we dedicate in tax dollars toward a project or fund may not be spent the way we’d like.
First, let’s look at the elephant in the room, which will be parading to our polling stations in just a couple weeks: the Huntsville School District’s millage proposal. School districts receive federal and state funds based on a lot of different factors, most notably student enrollment. That’s for operational expenses. For projects – such as new construction – a district uses funds from millage proceeds. That comes from the taxes paid on property within the district. Huntsville’s 32.1 millage rate is among the lowest in the state, meaning that without an increase – even with cutting corners in the budget and squeezing every last drop out of every penny – a lot of improvements are simply out of reach.
Moving on up to the City of Huntsville: according to City Clerk Janice Smith, sales tax income makes up 65 percent of the city’s general fund budget, with property taxes contributing to 7 percent.
“Those funds are combined with other city revenue to fund the services that the city provides to its residents,” Smith said. “About 39 percent of the expenditures from the general fund goes to the police department; about 16 percent goes to administration costs; about 16 percent goes to the Public Works Department (the rest of its budget comes from money designated for street only that goes into a separate fund); about 11 percent to the fire department; about 7 percent goes to the court department, with around 2 percent going to code enforcement, economic development, park, prisoner expense and animal control.”
City voters did approve a one-cent sales tax increase in 2013, funding things such as water/sewer infrastructure along the Highway 412 Bypass; a new fire station; and parks and street improvements. Those dollars have been well-spent in the years since: it’s why we have better roads, and a park worth having events at. Amid the school district’s proposal, several have voiced wishes for us to have a city-wide facility similar to Berryville’s, but that would likely require another sales tax increase, which is something the school is not allowed to engage in.
Inside Huntsville city limits, the sales tax rate is 10.5 percent. Of that, 6.5 percent goes to the State of Arkansas; 2 percent goes to Madison County; and 2 percent goes to the City of Huntsville. Outside the city limits, sales tax is 8.5 percent.
According to Madison County Deputy Clerk Tamitha Blocker, voters approved the county’s 1 percent general sales tax in November 1982.
“According to Ordinance No. 82-3, which called for the election, ‘the Madison County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) shall be fully-funded from the sales tax proceeds with any surplus to be added to the County General Fund,’” Blocker said. “Also, because this sales tax is a general sales tax rather than a dedicated sales tax, the incorporated municipalities within the county (City of Huntsville, City of St. Paul and City of Hindsville) are entitled to receive a pro-rated share of the proceeds. I believe this is pro-rated by population. The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration distributes the pro-rated shares to the county and each city monthly.”
In August 2003, the county approved a dedicated 1 percent sales tax to go to the county’s road and bridges department “and related improvements,” which “can only be used for the purposes stated,” Blocker said.
The State of Arkansas is able to get involved in just about all of these things through grant funding. It’s how the county may get new voting equipment (though on a cost-share basis, assuming the county can find the money). But it’s also fully responsible for some other things locally, most notably right now, the Withrow Springs State Park and our highways. Also, the state was responsible for the installation of Huntsville’s lone stoplight – it was determined necessary by the state (though I’d argue it’s since become unnecessary as Huntsville’s biggest consumer destination is no longer right by the light) and was paid for and built by the state. Now, though, it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain it.
This all is a long and winded way to explain that while we need a lot of things, they’re not all related. We need a jail, but the school district’s taxes won’t pay for that. An activity center would be great – a center fully-available to the public with a pool and facilities like Berryville would be even greater – but that won’t happen unless we raise our city sales taxes again, meaning the only other option for a center is through the school millage. Our local children need a pool to go swim in during the summer, but our city can’t help with that outside providing its own facilities, which wouldn’t be available without grant funds or another tax increase.
We can’t pull from one pot to fund another, even if that makes the most sense in some situations. We get what we pay for – we just have to make sure we’re paying toward the right things.